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No Other Book: Selected Essays

No Other Book: Selected Essays

by Randall Jarrell

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Randall Jarrell was only fifty-one at the time of his death, in 1965, yet he created a body of work that secured his position as one of the century's leading American men of letters. Although he saw himself chiefly as a poet, publishing a number of books of poetry, he also left behind a sparkling comic novel, four children's books, numerous translations, haunting


Randall Jarrell was only fifty-one at the time of his death, in 1965, yet he created a body of work that secured his position as one of the century's leading American men of letters. Although he saw himself chiefly as a poet, publishing a number of books of poetry, he also left behind a sparkling comic novel, four children's books, numerous translations, haunting letters, and four collections of essays. Edited by Brad Leithauser, No Other Bookdraws from these four essay collections, reminding us that Jarell the poet was also, in the words of Robert Lowell, "a critic of genius."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Few have written as compellingly or as memorably about the topics and writers they loved best as American poet, critic and essayist Jarrell (1914-1965). This important collection of 24 essays (plus snippets from over a dozen others) restores much of Jarrell's best nonfiction to print. Jarrell's own poetry still occasions debate, but his essays about poets won admiration from the start. He gained his reputation in the 1940s as a killingly witty reviewer of current verse; some of his most famous barbs get included here. But his real work was detailed, enthusiastic praise. Jarrell taught his peers to appreciate first the young Robert Lowell and W.H. Auden, then Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. Moore "not only can, but must, make poetry out of everything and anything"; a love poem by Frost "expresses... the transfiguring, almost inexpressible reaching out of the self to what has become closer and more personal than the self." The later Jarrell divided his prose between appreciations of poets, digressions on idiosyncratic passions, and funny or sad indictments of 1950s-style popular culture. Leithauser quite rightly devotes the first three-quarters of his book to Jarrell's essays on poets, the last quarter to those on other topics--on fiction by Kipling and Christina Stead, on grade school education, on sports-car races. As a convincing, above all personal, guide to modern poets, and as a captivating writer of criticism, Jarrell has no obvious 20th-century equal: his essays charm readers coming and going, even as they divert us from their own delights, back to the poems and other art works they describe. (June) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Christopher Caldwell
No Other Book, a generous new selection of essays edited by the poet Brad Leithauser, shows the full range of [Jarrell's] critical talents.
The Weekly Standard
Brooke Allen
Leithauser has limited 25 longer pieces that might be termed major....The exceptional critic, [Jarrell] memorably wrote, ''has not set up rigid standards to which a true work of art must conform, but...has tried instead to let the many true works of art — his experience of them — set up the general expectations to which his criticism of art conforms."
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A selection from the ardently, offhandedly composed criticism of, in editor Leithauser's words, "an informal, brazen, unfootnoted diamond-in-the-rough." At the height of Jarrell's critical output, Berryman called him "the most powerful reviewer of poetry active in this country," an ironic compliment for a prolific poet whose essay collections are now mostly out of print or unavailable. From Poetry and the Age (1953), A Sad Heart at the Supermarket (1962), The Third Book of Criticism (1969), and Kipling, Auden & Co. (1980), poet and novelist Leithauser (Friends of Freeland, 1997, etc.) has assembled a representative sample of Jarrell's work on Willliam Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Robert Graves, W.H. Auden, and others; his views on reading and criticism; and his cultural commentaries. In his excellent pieces on Frost, Whitman, and Housman, Jarrell immediately distinguishes himself from coeval New Critics with his unfiltered sense of a poem's mood and affect as revealed in its language, rather than in the epistemological ambiguities of its diction. In addition to the longer pieces, Leithauser has assembled "A Jarrell Gallery" culled from other sources. These brief excerpts, each a paragraph at the most, evidence his keen pleasure in good poetry and his feared invective against bad (e.g., "If [Stephen Spender] were as soft and sincere and sentimental as most of his poems make him out to be, the rabbits would have eaten him for lettuce, long ago"). Jarrell's writings on 1950s mass culture in "The Rest of It," however, often display a time-capsule mustiness in their complaints about Reader's Digest culture and all-American conformity. Still, Jarrell's clear-eyed view ofhis times has a glint of prescient clarity, as when he decries the academic professionalization of criticism and its ascendency over the works examined in "The Age of Criticism." In these well-chosen essays' unsparing generosity—and disparagement—Jarrell, unlike most critics, vividly conveys his enthusiasm for and occasional disappointment with contemporary poetry.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Obscurity of the Poet

When I was asked to talk about the Obscurity of the Modern Poet I was delighted, for I have suffered from this obscurity all my life. But then I realized that I was being asked to talk not about the fact that people don't read poetry, but about the fact that most of them wouldn't understand it if they did: about the difficulty, not the neglect, of contemporary poetry. And yet it is not just modern poetry, but poetry, that is today obscure. Paradise Lost is what it was; but the ordinary reader no longer makes the mistake of trying to read it -- instead he glances at it, weighs it in his hand, shudders, and suddenly, his eyes shining, puts it on his list of the ten dullest books he has ever read, along with Moby Dick, War and Peace, Faust, and Boswell's Life of Johnson. But I am doing this ordinary reader an injustice: it was not the Public, nodding over its lunch-pall, but the educated reader, the reader the universities have trained, who a few weeks ago, to the Public's sympathetic delight, put together this list of the world's dullest books.

Since most people know about the modern poet only that he is obscure -- i.e., that he is difficult, i.e., that he is neglected -- they naturally make a causal connection between the two meanings of the word, and decide that he is unread because he is difficult. Some of the time this is true; some of the time the reverse is true: the poet seems difficult because he is not read, because the reader is not accustomed to reading his or any other poetry. But most of the time neither is a cause -- both are no more than effects of that long-continued, world overturning culturaland social revolution (seen at its most advanced stage here in the United States) which has made the poet difficult and the public unused to any poetry exactly as it has made poet and public divorce their wives, stay away from church, dislike bull-baiting, free the slaves, get insulin shots for diabetes, or do a hundred thousand other things, some bad, some good, and some indifferent. It is superficial to extract two parts from this world-high whole, and to say of them: "This one, here, is the cause of that one, there; and that's all there is to it."

If we were in the habit of reading poets their obscurity would not matter; and, once we are out of the habit, their clarity does not help. Matthew Arnold said, with plaintive respect, that there was hardly a sentence in Lear that he hadn't needed to read two or three times; and three other appreciable Victorian minds, Beetle, Stalky, and McTurk, were even harder on it. They are in their study; Stalky reads:

Never any. It pleased the king his master, very late,
To strike at me, upon his misconstruction,
When he, conjunct, and flattering in his displeasure,
Tripped me behind: being down, insulted, railed,
And put upon him such a deal of man
That worthy'd him, got praises of the King
For him attempting who was self-subdued;
And, in the fleshment of this dread exploit,
Drew me on here.

Stalky says: "Now, then, my impassioned bard, construez! That's Shakespeare"; and Beetle answers, "at the end of a blank half minute": "Give it up! He's drunk." If schoolboys were forced to read "The Phoenix and Turtle," what would Beetle have said of these two stanzas?

Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called,

Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together;
To themselves yet either-neither,
Simple were so well compounded ...

You and I can afford to look at Stalky and Company, at Arnold, with dignified superiority: we know what those passages mean; we know that Shakespeare is never obscure, as if he were some modernist poet gleefully pasting puzzles together in his garret. Yet when we look at a variorum Shakespeare with its line or two of text at the top of the page, its forty or fifty lines of wild surmise and quarrelsome conjecture at the bottom -- we are troubled. When the Alexandrian poet Lycophron refers -- and he is rarely so simple -- to the centpede, fair-faced, stork-hued daughters of Phalacra, and they turn out to be boats, one ascribes this to Alexandrian decadence; but then one remembers that Welsh and Irish and Norse poets, the poets of a hundred barbarous cultures, loved nothing so much as referring to the very dishes on the table by elaborate descriptive epithets -- periphrases, kennings -- which their hearers had to be specially educated to understand. (Loved nothing so much, that is, except riddles.) And just consider the amount of classical allusions that those polite readers, our ancestors, were expected to recognize -- and did recognize. If I recite to you, The brotherless Heliades / Melt in such amber tears as these, many of you will think, Beautiful; a good many will think, Marvell; but how many of you will know to whom Marvell is referring?

Yet the people of the past were not repelled by this obscurity (seemed, often, foolishly to treasure it); nor are those peoples of the present who are not so far removed from the past as we: who have preserved, along with the castles, the injustice, and the social discrimination of the past, a remnant of its passion for reading poetry. It is hard to be much more difficult than Mallarmé yet when I went from bookstore to bookstore in Paris, hunting for one copy of Corbière, I began to feel a sort of mocking frustration at the poems by Mallarmé, letters by Mallarmé, letters to Mallarmé, biographies of, essays on, and homage to Mallarmé with which the shelves of those bookstores tantalized me. For how long now the French poet has been writing as if the French public did not exist -- as if it were, at best, a swineherd dreaming of that faraway princess the poet; yet it looks at him with traditional awe, and reads in dozens of literary newspapers, scores of magazines, the details of his life, opinions, temperament, and appearance...

Meet the Author

Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) received the National Book Award for his book of poems The Woman at the Washington Zoo. His children's book The Animal Family was named a Newbery Honor Book, and his translation of The Three Sisters was produced by The Actors Studio Theatre.

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